Tragic events and resulting protests in Ferguson, Missouri, have focused attention on the militarization of local police forces. The Evanston Police Department, however, has very little military-issue equipment, according to Chief of Police Richard Eddington.
“We have a number of rules that we use for training,” said Chief Eddington. The rifles, military surplus M-4 carbines, behave like most other carbine rifles, and using them in training reduces wear and tear on police rifles. “We will not issue those [M-4] rifles” in any law enforcement functions,” said the Chief.
Most carbine rifles in the department are individual officer purchased weapons, he said. Rifles are deployed on the street only in very limited circumstances. The department also has 12 ballistic helmets that would only be called into play in an “active shooter” engagement, said the Chief.
Although the EPD does not have significant military-issue equipment, Evanston is part of the Northern Illinois Police Alarm System (NIPAS), a mutual aid organization allowing some 93 Chicago-area communities to pool resources in cases of emergency. While Evanston does not have a SWAT team, for example, NIPAS does. Asked if NIPAS uses military surplus equipment, the Chief said, “We have access to that equipment should the need arise.”
NIPAS would be called upon for an ongoing crisis, such as a hostage barricade situation. A NIPAS call requires up to an hour lead time, so immediate, imminent situations must be handled locally.
The need, he said, would never include peaceful protests. It is never the role of the Evanston Police Department to prevent peaceful protests, Chief Eddington said. He pointed to Occupy Evanston, the Committee for Peace and Justice, and the recent Neighbors for Peace-sponsored reading by pro-Palestinian author Ali Abunimah. “Peaceful protests are … never the issue.”
An entirely different issue arises if outside groups, such as the those predicted to protest the 2012 NATO meetings in Chicago, should come to Evanston. If large-scale incidents of civil unrest occur, the EPD would be prepared for such an eventuality. But the citizens of Evanston and local groups engaged in public protest here will not be the problem, according to the Chief.
A central philosophical tenet of the Department limits the chances of a repeat of the images we have seen from Ferguson, he said. “The transparency that the citizens of Evanston enjoy,” transparency as to police policy, equipment, personnel, and access, present “an entirely different level of engagement than we see in other parts of the country,” said the Chief.
The EPD attends all ward meetings, participating with citizens and addressing issues as they arise. The department is present at every City Council meeting. “When the Mosque holds a community rally, we are there,” he said. “They are going to continue to see us… we need to have credibility within the community.”
The result is that citizens know the Police Department. They know use-of-force incidents will be investigated, and they know who will conduct the investigations, the Chief said.
Constant interaction with the public acts as an “insurance policy against things getting out of hand,” said Chief Eddington. “You can’t make friends in a crisis.”
He cited as an example of the EPD’s philosophy the stop-and-frisk policy instituted last year in response to youth violence. Before implementing the policy, EPD engaged the community, presented the proposed policy, explained the reasoning behind it, and gave elected officials and community leaders avenues for addressing any potential abuses of the policy. As a result, “the community believes” the policy to be “legitimate,” said the Chief. There have been very few complaints about the policy, he said, and most if not all complaints have come from outside of Evanston.
Another issue coming out of Ferguson is the demographic makeup of its police department. While Chief Eddington agrees that “the demographic makeup of the police department should reflect the community,” the reality is more complicated when police officers can have 30-year careers and demographics can change far more rapidly than that.
Demographic “mathematics are a factor, but the deciding factor [in hiring] is the attitude and demeanor” of the individual officer. An officer must match the Department’s overall philosophy of engagement and interaction with the public. Returning to the stop-and-frisk policy, he said stops have been made by African American officers, white officers, Hispanic officers and others. The results have not mattered – complaints have been minimal and the community views the policy as legitimate.
“The philosophy of the Department is equally as important as the makeup,” said Chief Eddington.